The long dirt road from our temporary accommodation in San Miguel, Mexico, stretched past children playing, an old gas station with people crowding around a standing fan, and a donkey tied to a tree, lost in thought. Once we finally reached the highway, my boyfriend Anthony and I rolled down the windows, welcoming the hot air. At ninety-eight dollars a night and thirty-two kilometers away from the center town, our first trip up this road was spent wondering if we were driving into a horror movie. Thankfully, our little ranch house, with a window overlooking the valley, turned out to be charming in its seclusion. Max, the ranch dog, slept outside our door and guarded us from scorpions; only one managed to sneak past.
Sean, the owner of the ranch, usually sat on his porch while Max waited for falling sunflower seeds. The two of them had seen San Miguel de Allende invaded by American expats. What started as a few bold artisans, was now a community of well-traveled retirees seeking solace in the city’s timelessness. Between sips of homemade jamaica (a refreshing drink of hibiscus, sugar, and water), we asked Sean about nearby places of interest, businesses and music venues, trusting his local intel to plan our stay. But when we asked him what restaurants we should go to, he had only one answer: Azotea.
The decision was made. I typed Azotea into my phone and showed it to our driver, who simply nodded. Minutes pass, but it’s not until the pink spires of Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel (the gothic cathedral in el centro), have disappeared in the back windshield that I realized how far we have gone. The blue dot on our Google maps hovered, searching for something to sink its teeth into. Our driver stopped the car, and motioned for us to get out.
With no Azotea in sight, we found ourselves standing aimlessly on the side of the busy road. As the taxi drove away, I felt the sinking feeling that we would not be able to retrace his route. The blue dot on our map was still jumping around, clearly as lost as we were. There were two options: panic, or embrace the feeling of being truly, truly lost.
Azotea remained in the back of our minds, but the distractions on the street demanded our attention: an older woman was making soap in her kitchen, and a man zipped by on a moped. We walked for minutes, maybe hours, exploring this part of town we haphazardly fell into. When the shadows started to stretch over the sidewalk, indicating that it was late afternoon, our bodies realized how hungry (and sober) we were. Azotea would have to wait, at least until after a drink.
We walked straight into the first bar we could find. The bar had two saloon doors, a few high top tables and for its simplicity, a surprisingly delicious tamarindo margarita. “Azotea is just a little further up the street,” our waitress assured us. We were close, I could feel it; and much more optimistic with mezcal in our veins.
Maybe the mezcal got the best of us, but we found ourselves walking aimlessly again, popping in and out of art galleries and tiny eccentric shops. Time slipped out of our pockets. Our wandering was only interrupted by the faint clash of a symbol. Then another. Somewhere in the distance a band was getting louder.
I’m not sure what we were expecting, but it definitely wasn’t a three block parade procession led by a mariachi band, two fifteen-foot tall papier-mâché figures, and a donkey pulling a cart of tequila. Someone tossed a necklace over my head with a tiny porcelain shot glass tangling on the end. “It’s for the mezcal!” he shouted as he filled it. We laughed. We danced. We fumbled for my camera so that people would believe us. We eventually gave up trying to capture it, and tried our best to soak in the moment.
As Anthony and I danced our way to the front, we noticed the giant figures’ outfits: a tux made from cardboard and a long lace veil covering locks of twisted yarn. That’s when we saw a man and a woman walking hand-in-hand behind them. The beautiful, mezcal drenched ensemble was a wedding celebration! As we discovered, it’s tradition for the couple to parade through the streets the night before their wedding to ward off any bad spirits.
The mezcal in our stomach ached for food, and we remembered we had been searching for Azotea. We gave a toast to our first time as wedding crashers and said goodbye to our new friends.
Darkness suits San Miguel in a way I’ll never quite understand. String lights outside of restaurants twinkle, street vendors’ signs glow, and vintage lampposts light up the street – the whole city seems to bathe in the orange hue of another era.
We’d come too far to give up on Azotea now. I made eye contact with a young man selling inflatable crayons who seemed trustworthy enough to point us in the right direction. He motioned to a corner building on the next block. When we arrived, there was no sign outside, but a lively crowd inside with only one table left, right in front of the band. We looked around feeling quite accomplished – we had finally made it.
Then the waiter handed us menus for Pueblo Viejo – not Azotea.
I looked across the table at Anthony – my partner, my best friend, my copilot – and smiled because we’d failed. We failed hard. We sank back in our chairs and laughed, equal parts out of desperation and exhaustion, but decided to stay. Our failure was served with slow roasted asada doused in mole, and it was perfect. My straw made noise as it emptied the bottom of my margarita glass. C’est la vie, I thought. This was a metaphor for life – we spend all of our days searching for something – the next house, the next job, the next breakthrough. But at night, we celebrate everything in between.
We got up from the table, ready to head back and claim our defeat. On our way out, I spotted a staircase next to the door that I hadn’t noticed before. There was a hostess stand blocking the stairs and it said ‘Azotea‘.
Azotea, as we learned in that moment, means ‘rooftop’ in Spanish, which explained all of the confusion with our taxi driver and directions. Everyone knows a different rooftop.
But this rooftop was special. With each stair, the music grew louder and the air grew thicker with cologne. Up on the roof, the city lights twinkled below us. A woman in the corner with perfectly curled hair made eyes at another man while her boyfriend ordered drinks. The waiter kept a notepad in his pocket, but never wrote down the drinks. The table next to us spilled their drinks while they gave a toast. A machismo guy with one too many buttons undone shouted for his friend across the bar. And then there was us, the couple who spent the whole day searching for the obvious (as so many often do).
I felt so overwhelmed with happiness – for the open air, for our fellow diners, for everything in that moment. I didn’t want anyone else to find Azotea. I wanted it to stay frozen like this in my mind forever. We stayed until we couldn’t see the moon anymore, and knew it was time to head home. Back down the dirt road, past the old donkey, and up to our house on the ranch. Max greeted us as we stumbled in and got ready for bed.
The next morning, we told Sean about our day: the galleries, the tamarindo margaritas, the wedding parade – all of it. As for Azotea, I guess I wasn’t quite ready to explain it, or maybe I wanted to hold onto the secret just a little longer.
I told him we couldn’t find it. Next time, I promised.